For years Scot Peterson loved working as a school resource deputy with the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
He was dependable. He intervened in conflicts as a mediator. He was awarded school resource deputy of the year about four years ago and was recognized at a Parkland city commission meeting.
He volunteered to help with a lock-down drill at a Catholic school four years ago.
According to documents released to The Palm Beach Post on Friday, his superiors said he was good at his job, even exceeding what he was asked to do.
Until, apparently, he didn’t.
The suburban Boynton Beach resident is said to have stood outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day for minutes while Nikolas Cruz sprayed bullets at the students Peterson was supposed to protect.
President Donald Trump on Friday called the 54-year-old a “coward.” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said his deputy should have gone in. Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said he wished Peterson had the same courage that the school’s teachers displayed.
But Douglas English teacher Felicia Burgin, who worked in the freshman building where the shootings took place, has what she concedes isn’t “the most popular opinion.”
“My take is this is misdirected anger,” Burgin told The Palm Beach Post on Friday. “I think that nobody knows unless you’re actually in this situation … And it just seems to me his choices were to run in there, blindly, and be killed by this AR-15 with his hand gun as a defense, or be called a coward … From my perspective, there is nothing he could have done to prevent what happened … My anger is with Nikolas Cruz.”
End of a stellar career
The decision to stand down marked the end of Peterson’s otherwise nearly stellar three decades with the sheriff’s office. Israel publicly disclosed Peterson’s lack of action Thursday and said the deputy was suspended without pay. Peterson then chose to retire instead.
Israel said his department is investigating Peterson’s inaction in the massacre, in which 14 students and three adults died and many were hurt. Authorities say Cruz, 19, who briefly lived west of Lantana, has confessed to being the shooter.
Israel said two other deputies, Edward Eason and Guntis Treijs, also are under investigation and have been put on “restrictive duty.” Records indicate Eason lives in Lake Worth and Treijs in Coral Springs. It doesn’t appear either has ever worked in Palm Beach County.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office had 23 interactions with Cruz or his family from November 2008 to November 2017, records show. And some of them happened while Peterson was the Douglas High resource officer.
On Feb. 5, 2016, a deputy relayed information to the resource officer that a neighbor’s son claimed Cruz said on Instagram he planned to shoot up the school. A sheriff’s deputy said Thursday they have no record of what happened to that information which was given to the resource officer.
And on Sept. 28, 2016, a peer counselor reported to the school resource officer that Cruz possibly ingested gasoline in an attempt to commit suicide and was cutting himself. The mental health counselor said Cruz didn’t meet the criteria for a Baker Act, according to records. The Baker Act allows the state to have someone in custody for up to three days.
Peterson nowhere in sight
Calls made by The Palm Beach Post to Peterson and other relatives weren’t returned. A call to the home of his first wife and four children was answered by a man who hung up on a reporter.
No one answered the door Thursday or Friday at his house. Around the time that Israel made the announcement Thursday, reporters flooded Peterson’s neighborhood and his family called the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office for assistance, said spokeswoman Teri Barbera.
A deputy outside Peterson’s home Friday said Peterson left town but didn’t elaborate.
Neighbors said Peterson moved in about a year ago and has been updating his home.
Nelson Sandy pointed to his front door.
“He’s right over there,” he said. Then he pointed to his morning Palm Beach Post. “And he’s right here.”
The neighbors differed on what Peterson should have done Feb. 14.
Sandy said he should have kept his job because he isn’t responsible for the shooting.
Another neighbor, who wouldn’t give his name but said he was an 83-year-old Army veteran who has volunteered for PBSO, called Peterson’s inaction “terrible.
“He’s supposed to be a first responder.”
The neighbor said he saw Peterson fixing screens at his home about a week and a half ago and asked if he had a day off. He said Peterson told him he had many sick days left.
Joe Sansone said Peterson is “involved in a terrible situation. He’s got parents that are angry at the world and he’s part of the world so they’re angry at him. But people are hurting and they got to strike back at somebody. I feel badly for him. I feel badly of course for the parents as well.”
He received high marks
Peterson received high marks in his work evaluations for years, achieving “meets expectations” and more often “exceeds expectations.”
“Deputy Peterson is trusted as the School Resource Officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. He values his position and takes pride in protecting the students, faculty and staff at his school,” one of his bosses wrote in his 2016-2017 evaluation.
He started at Stoneman Douglas around 2010 and before that held the same position at the McFatter Technical Institute in Davie. He attended Miami-Dade Community College and Florida International University.
Peterson did get into trouble once, however.
In 2015 he identified himself as a BSO employee in an email questioning the management of Chief Anthony Williams of the Broward District School Police. He was a Resident on Campus Security Program officer at Atlantic Technical College at the time and Williams recommended the ROCS be dissolved, according to records.
Peterson said Williams failed to supervise the program, but “we still everyday protect our kids and school campuses.”
The final recommendation at the conclusion of the internal affairs investigation was counsel.
Teachers and staff returned to Stoneman Douglas on Friday and some conversations focused on Peterson and how they thought if he went inside, the end result might have been different.
‘Absolutely no excuse’
Douglas math teacher Jim Gard said he was “disgusted.”
“Instead of having 17 dead maybe there would be four dead and that sounds terrible to the people, especially the parents and family, but this never, ever, ever should have happened. There is absolutely no excuse for an officer who is trained to not go in.”
Israel, the Broward sheriff, said Peterson, believed to be the only resource officer at the large Parkland school, arrived at the building 60 to 90 seconds into the shooting, which lasted just six minutes.
“What I saw was a deputy arrive at the west side of Building 12, take up a position, and he never went in,” Israel said, adding Peterson is believed to have remained outside for upwards of four minutes. He said the surveillance video of Peterson is part of the investigation and might never be released.
Unlike Broward, Palm Beach County has its own schools police department, one of only a few in Florida. PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera, asked if she could speak hypothetically about a deputy who just happened to be at a school and heard gunfire, said, “they’re trained to find the gunfire. Eliminate the threat.”
But she stressed that the deputy would take directions from school police.
“My expectation is the officers can handle any kind of situation they come upon,” Palm Beach County Schools Police Chief Lawrence Leon told the Post on Friday. “We train in ‘active shooter’ probably more than anybody, I would say. After Columbine, we started training that way; an ‘active shooter’ (situation) was to engage.”
He said while police always must make split-second decisions, “you do training so that becomes muscle memory.”
But he also said many of his officers told him they were “distraught” over the deputy’s inaction in Parkland.
“They felt, how could not respond when it’s kids.”
‘Do something. Stop the killer.’
Sara Ojalvo, Douglas High special needs assistant, said she found Peterson to be “charismatic” and was surprised to learn he had not taken action.
“You never know how you are going to react to a situation,” Ojalvo said. “Nobody knows what was on his mind. Why he didn’t go inside. We don’t know. That’s something so new. It’s almost too new to process. Because this is a person that was so charismatic. Do something. Stop the killer.”
FULL COVERAGE: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting
Others who spoke at Douglas High on Friday felt Peterson must share a larger burden of blame.
“How could he do it?” Broward teachers representative Anna Fusco said of Peterson. “Just as a person and a human being, I hope that (authorities) are taking the measures to figure out and find out why and how so they can help everyone else that’s put in that position that’s there to protect. To make sure it doesn’t happen again. The only one that can explain why he didn’t walk in is him.”
Staff researcher Melenie Mena and staff writers Joe Schad, Eliot Kleinberg, Hannah Winston, Sarah Elsesser and Ryan DiPentima contributed to this story.